Every Monday, Sean McIndoe looks back at weekend play in the NHL and the league’s biggest storylines. You can follow him on Twitter.
Opening faceoff: Ranger Things
Well, that was the scariest thing any of us watched over the weekend.
On Saturday, we geared up for the Rangers/Canadiens matchup by trying to figure out if it was too early for a must-win game. Both teams were struggling badly, and both were taking plenty of heat for it. And one of them was going to walk out of Montreal with yet another tough loss.
One entertaining 5–4 final later, the Canadiens left with those two desperately needed points. They’re still sitting in last place in the East, and still have a long way to go to claw back into the Atlantic race. But for a few days, at least, we can stop working on our Montreal Canadiens obituaries.
The Rangers, on the other hand… yikes.
As a rule of thumb, you know your season isn’t going according to plan when you find yourself saying “This feels like a crucial game, so let’s bench the future Hall of Famer and give Ondrej Pavelec another start.” But with Henrik Lundqvist struggling and Pavelec coming off a win over the Coyotes, the Rangers went with the hot hand. It didn’t work.
That’s not to say Pavelec was to blame for New York’s loss. The Rangers were outshot 43-26, including 19-2 in the first period, and found themselves trailing 3-0 before the game was 14 minutes old. That continued a season-long trend of the Rangers falling behind early, often by multiple goals before the game is more than a few minutes old. They say all the right things about being ready to play, but never seem to back it up.
That’s the sort of thing that can end up costing a coach his job, and we seem to be getting dangerously close to that scenario playing out in New York. Yesterday, Larry Brooks reported that Alain Vigneault could be fired if the Rangers lose to the Golden Knight tomorrow night. If that’s true and management is ready to pull the trigger, then you have to figure Vigneault is already as good as gone at some point no matter what happens against Vegas.
If so, there’s an experienced replacement already in place – the Rangers hired former Sabres and Stars coach Lindy Ruff as an assistant this summer. Only three men have coached more NHL games, so Ruff would be a straightforward choice to run the show for at least the rest of the season, and he’s a guy who could come in and crack the whip if management thinks the players are getting complacent.
Then again, there’s little indication that a coaching change would fix much for this team. If Lundqvist is starting to show his age (and not just battling through a cold streak), a shaky blue line is going to keep giving up more goals than the patchwork forward unit can match. And since we’re constantly told that major roster changes are next to impossible during the season, that doesn’t leave much in the way of hope for a major turnaround.
And so, as usually happens, the focus goes behind the bench. For now, all eyes will be on tomorrow night’s Rangers/Golden Knights matchup, as we find out whether it’s a make-or-break night for a coach. And if the rumour mill is to be believed, we may not have to wait very long.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins (7-5-1, -14 true goals differential*): Yes, I’m still forcing the defending champs into the top five even though they get completely destroyed once a week. I’m aware I have a problem. Maybe I’ll be able to let this go next week.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets (7-4-0, +6): The Jackets have an interesting split in their results. Only two of their wins have come against last year’s playoff teams, and one of those was the Rangers. And their four losses have come against the Blackhawks and the top three teams on our list.
3. St. Louis Blues (9-2-1, +11): They’ve suddenly opened up a seven-point lead on a very mediocre Central Division.
2. Los Angeles Kings (9-1-1, +17): Dustin Brown’s reemergence as a useful player is one of the season’s underrated early stories.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning (9-2-1, +15): Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov both had their season-opening point streaks snapped in Saturday’s loss to the Ducks. Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito are safe for another season.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
Four weeks in, things are starting to stabilize in the top five. The Lightning keep the top spot for the second straight week, the Kings and Penguins return from last week’s list, and the Blue Jackets are back after a short absence. The Leafs and Blackhawks drop off the list after tough weeks, and the Blues slip in as the only first-timer.
But maybe the most notable thing about this week’s list is who isn’t there. More specifically, a team that hasn’t been there all season, despite having the best record in the entire league in terms of points percentage. Despite having the third-best goals differential in the league. Despite their one and only loss coming in a game in which their star goaltender was hurt.
So fine, let’s talk about the 8-1-0 Vegas Golden Knights. What’s an expansion team got to do to crack the top five around here?
First, let’s issue the standard reminder of what these rankings are meant to do. We’re trying to forecast the race for the Stanley Cup, which isn’t the same thing as measuring who’s the best right now. If you’re taking a snapshot of today, then sure, put the Golden Knight in the top spot and be done with it. That’s one way to look at it, but it’s not what we’re aiming for here.
But even with that said, Vegas fans might be saying: Why not us? In a league flush with parity, who’s to say the Knights couldn’t win it all, or at least be enough of a threat to warrant a spot in the top five? After all, if we’re taking the long view, there’s plenty to suggest that the Knights will improve as the season goes on.
Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcom Subban will be back eventually, they seem to be on the verge of getting Shea Theodore back up to the NHL, and there’s still a chance that the Vadim Shipachyov mess ends with a trade that could bring in immediate help. Heck, maybe George McPhee’s “draft all the defencemen so you can trade them” master plan even pays off at some point. These days, even Sidney Crosby is on the bandwagon.
So that’s the case for the Golden Knights, and it’s not a bad one. But there are a few factors working against taking this early-season run too seriously. For one, it’s come through a seriously soft schedule, one that almost seems to have been designed to ensure a strong start for the league’s newest team. The Knights have been at home for seven of their first nine, and have played two-thirds of their games against teams that missed the playoffs last year, including the Avalanche, Red Wings and two against the Coyotes. According to hockey-reference.com’s strength-of-schedule metric, the Knights have had the easiest schedule in the league, and it’s not especially close.
You can only beat the teams the schedule gives you, and the Knights have had a few impressive wins mixed in along the way, including over the Blackhawks and Blues. But as nice as those wins have been, it’s hard to see how the Knights have the roster to maintain their success. They may be the most successful expansion team in league history, but they’re still an expansion team.
In theory, it’s possible that the other 30 teams managed to expose enough talent to assemble a legitimate Cup contender out of castoffs and spare parts. But with the Knights about to head out on a tough six-game Eastern road swing, it’s far more likely that we’re seeing a short-term hot streak that will end sooner than later.
None of that should take away from what’s been one of the season’s best early stories. The Golden Knights are better than we thought, they’re a ton of fun to watch and they seem to be winning over fans in a new market. Their hot start has been an October success story all the way around.
Let’s just not get crazy about it lasting until June.
Road to the lottery
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards watching Rasmus Dahlin highlights and playing with draft-lottery simulations.
5. New York Rangers (3-7-2, -8): They lose to the Canadiens, so they take over their bottom-five spot. Seems fair.
4. Colorado Avalanche (6-5-0, even): A 7-0 loss to an expansion team followed by a 6-3 win over the Blackhawks. Why not. Nothing makes sense anymore.
3. Detroit Red Wings (5-6-1, -5): After a surprise 4-1 start, it’s been getting ugly in Detroit with six straight losses and a captain saying stuff like this. Saturday’s shootout win over the Panthers wasn’t pretty, but they needed it badly.
Next up: A basement battle with the Coyotes.
1. Arizona Coyotes (0-10-1, -22): Ugh.
Man, the Coyotes are terrible.
We’re not exactly breaking news here. They’ve lost 11 straight, which isn’t something that typically happens to good teams. They’ve got the league’s worst goals differential, their goaltending is terrible, and their offence isn’t much better. It’s true that they’re rebuilding, but even viewed through that lens there’s been plenty of bad news, including prospects like Dylan Strome and Lawson Crouse failing to stick with the big team.
In fact, just calling this a bad start isn’t really doing it justice. It’s been historically bad, and might even be in the running for the worst ever. They’re only the second team to ever lose 11 straight to start a season, joining the 1943–44 Rangers.
That was a long time ago, but it should ring a bell for hockey fans because it’s often cited as the single worst season by any team, ever. Yes, even worse than the expansion Capitals. Worse than the expansion Senators and Sharks. Last year’s Avalanche? Not even in the conversation. The 1943-44 Rangers might just stand alone.
With a roster depleted by World War II service, the team didn’t win their first game until mid-December. Worse, they won their sixth game of the season on Jan. 22, then didn’t win another for the rest of the season, finishing the year with a 21-game winless streak. They gave up nearly 150 goals more than they scored, which is tough to do in a 50-game season, and suffered losses by scores of 12-2, 8-0, 11-2 and even 15-0.
The Coyotes won’t be that bad – the modern era of parity wouldn’t allow it. But the comparison drives home just how awful their October has been. And it means their season is already all but over. As Elliotte Friedman has pointed out, teams rarely make the playoffs if they’re four points out on Nov. 1. Heading into tonight’s matchup with the Flyers, the Coyotes are already 11 back. The season is basically a writeoff already.
Most teams would respond to that kind of start by blowing things up and looking towards the future. But the Coyotes already spent the last few years doing that, and this was supposed to be the year that it paid off. They’ve already got a new coach, and you’d assume that GM John Chayka would get at least a little bit more time before he had to worry about his own job. The roster is already young, and most of the veterans that other teams might want were just acquired this summer.
One exception: defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, whose contract runs through 2019 and would no doubt bring a windfall if the team ever decided to move him. They say they won’t, and have been repeating that for years. So far they’ve kept their word. But at some point, you’d think they’re going to have to at least consider it. Coyotes fans won’t want to hear that, but if the team isn’t winning then the talk won’t go away.
By the way, Ekman-Larsson left Saturday’s game with an injury. It’s been that kind of year.
If you’re looking for positives, there’s 19-year-old rookie Clayton Keller, who leads the team in scoring. He’s been fantastic, and looks like an early Calder favourite. But other than that, it’s slim pickings.
Maybe the best news for the Coyotes right now is that it can’t possibly get worse. Even the 1943–44 Rangers won a game eventually. The Coyotes will, too. Probably.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• Don’t look now, but after putting a 7–1 beating on the Penguins last night, the Jets have moved into second spot in the Central. (It’s actually a five-way tie for that spot, but the Jets have played the fewest games.)
• As a result of that Central log jam, the Wild find themselves dead last in the division despite a respectable 10 points in nine games.
• The Oilers continue to struggle, dropping a 5-2 decision to Washington on Saturday. The Flames got the Caps on the second half of the back-to-back last night and managed a 2–1 win.
• Play of the weekend: The Kings pulling off a miracle buzzer-beater to beat the Bruins in overtime.
• The red-hot John Tavares recorded his second hat trick in three games to lead the Islanders to a win over the Predators. He’s only the third Islander to ever accomplish that.
• We had a minor trade on Saturday, as the Devils sent goaltender Scott Wedgewood to the Coyotes for a fifth-round pick. In other goaltending trade news, the Jets may be listening to offers for Michael Hutchinson.
• Here’s a weird glitch in the schedule: Three teams, all in the Eastern Conference, currently have their next game up on the schedule against the Coyotes.
• Things are getting interesting in Carolina, where owner Peter Karmanos is growing impatient about the proposed sale of the team.
• It should be a nice scene in San Jose tonight, as Patrick Marleau returns for the first time as a visitor after having spent 20 seasons as a Shark.